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Dream Vertical: Morris Wines

The drive from Albury airport into the picturesque town of Rutherglen, with it ancient pubs and assorted landmarks of a bygone era, gives a sense of the history of this wonderful part of the world. 

Originally built in the glory days of the 1850s gold rushes, it was ultimately to be gold of the liquid variety that made North East Victoria one of the great success stories in Australian wine. And this importance remains true today.

  

One of the legendary winemakers of our industry, and an integral part of the history of the region, is Morris Wines of Rutherglen. Five generations have grown and made some of Australia’s greatest wines, including the uniquely North East Victorian Muscats and Topaques, as well as the Morris flagship red wine, Durif.

Arriving at the Morris winery at Mia Mia, 15 kilometres outside Rutherglen, I am met by fifth generation and current custodian David Morris, whose family have been responsible for making the most consistently outstanding fortifieds in Australia for the last 160 years. 

Walking into the dark cellar with its dirt floors and huge barrels, the temperature is chilly. There’s a mystery and magic to this place which anyone with even the remotest interest in wine would understand. I have a sudden feeling this is going to be, for me, an important and memorable day.

Rich beginnings

In 1859, George Francis Morris purchased 220 acres of prime north-east Victorian land, amongst the first released on the rich Browns Plains. He established his property, Fairfield, and the Morris family went on to make successful forays into grape growing and winemaking, as well as cattle, sheep and grazing.

However, in recent times, perhaps the most important Morris has been the legendary Mick Morris. Although retired, he can still be found in the cellars most days. His contribution to both the family business and the Australian wine industry cannot be over-stated.

Of course, Mick Morris’s greatest wines were his fortifieds – the Muscats, Tokays, Ports and Sherries, as they were then known, were amongst the finest Australian wines. But as these wine styles fell from their glory days in the 1960s, Mick realised there was a trend towards dry reds and he began to focus on making table wines from Durif, Shiraz and then Cinsault. The Durif was particularly unusual, with no other plantings in Australia at that time. But the gamble paid off and the Morris Durif today ranks as one of the best examples of the variety in the country.

Mick’s son David now runs the company, applying a common sense winemaking philosophy. 

“The vineyard and its fruit are critical,” he describes. “The table wines must be fruit driven, with richness and flavour. Oak is important, but for structure, not flavour.” 

For the fortifieds, he tells me, there are a number of key elements including, “Looking after your fruit in the vineyard, having a range of quality wines sitting in old oak, the availability of multi vintages of the base wines to provide all the required components and finally, blending those components to ensure the finest and most complex end product.”

Not many wineries in the world have these ingredients at their disposal, and David uses them to perfection.

altered perceptions

Sitting down with David to a bracket of 20 Durifs spanning from 1985 to the current release 2013, I can’t help but bring preconceived ideas to the table. 

Personally, I have always believed Durif, aka Petite Sirah, to be a turbo charged wine full of overripe fruit and high alcohol that you wouldn’t consume within 20 years of vintage. 

Well, didn’t this tasting completely change my perceptions. Here we had a consistent style of elegant, balanced, fruit driven wines that were a complete pleasure to taste. Even the oldest wine from ’85 was still very alive, displaying attractive earthy chocolate aromas, good acidity and savoury fruit – not bad for nearly 35 years of age!

The Durif plantings go back to 1920 and for decades were used to produce fortified wines. Then Mick Morris produced the first ‘dry red’ Durif in 1954, making him the pioneer of the variety in Australia. 

For me, the elegance, poise, structure and savoury fruit were consistent through the four decades of wines we tasted. As David explained, “We are looking for flavour more than anything in our Durif, flavour will absorb the tannins.” 

There were one or two tannic wines in the bracket, but these represented vintage conditions and were still highly drinkable wines. It was certainly a bracket that had me re-thinking this variety and I’m sure I will be drinking more of these wines in the future.

The Art of Blending

Apart from Durif, the most famous wine from Morris, and indeed Rutherglen, has to be the ubiquitous Muscat, made from Muscat a Petits Grains. 

Muscat is made all over the world, but nowhere else does this variety produce quite the same intensity of flavour and richness as in North East Victoria. The rich soil of Browns Plains and the warm, dry summers provide ideal conditions for ripening the grapes for fortified wines. 

Only a handful of producers have the capacity to make base wine for Muscat and then to blend it to a final product using the laborious ‘solera’ technique. 

Of course, it is the solera, as well as the reserve wines held in oak, that make the amazing Tawnies, Muscats and Topaques at Morris wines. I had the great pleasure of tasting the base wines from 1960, 1986, 2000, 2008, 2014 and 2018 – all direct from their barrels. 

Each of these vintages could be used to blend up one of the several Morris Muscats – the older the base wine, the stronger the richness and flavour. Regarding the older base wines, David recalls his father used to say, “A tablespoon does wonders to 50 gallons.” 

The 1960 was hugely intense and viscous, with aromas of raisins, Christmas cake and marmalade, and on the palate, an explosion of toffee, rancio and spice. 

The Final Act

  

Vintage Fortified (formerly Port) is a personal favourite of the Morris fortifieds, and they have been producing them for over a century. David did not disappoint, opening wines from 2017, 2015, 2013, 2009, 2002, 1998, 1987 and 1984. 

Vintage Fortified originated in Portugal’s Douro Valley, and sadly, very few Australian winemakers still produce it. But Morris have remained firm, and while it might not be their biggest seller, I realised upon tasting these wines how magnificent they really are. Unlike Tawny, which is matured in wood and will not improve once bottled, Vintage Fortified is bottled as a young wine and it improves with many years in the bottle. 

The Morris Vintage Fortifieds were another revelation – the 1984, made from 100% Cabernet, was quite extraordinary, showing dark chocolate, licorice and spice, lots of primary fruit and great balance and length. This wine could see another 35 years! All the other Vintage Fortifieds were consistent in their quality, although David uses the Cabernet for table wines these days and instead, the classic Portuguese variety Touriga is now used. The current 2007 is a delicious after dinner drink, and offers outstanding value. It is a tragedy that these wines aren’t enjoyed and supported by more Australian wine drinkers.

A strong future

  

David Morris was handed the keys in 1993 and clearly the wines have maintained the finest quality across the entire portfolio. This is no mean feat when you are overseeing an array of sparkling, fortified and table wines. 

The business has had many ups and downs over the years, including phylloxera, changing consumer tastes and several changes of ownership. It is no doubt a testament to the strength of character of the Morris family that they have endured all these challenges and maintained an outstanding quality of product. David’s son Madden is following his forbears and waiting patiently to one day take over as the sixth generation to control this national treasure. Long may the tradition continue!

Explore our range of Morris Wines here.

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Fingerprints on History: The McWilliam’s Story
At the heart of the history of McWilliam’s Wines is a culture of innovation that’s not only ingrained in the company, but has rippled out through the wider industry. Taste aside, why is wine so special? Is it because it’s the accumulation of much more than just simple liquid in a glass? Is it just where it came from and who made it? Or is it the sum total of its many essential components? However elusive the answer to that question is, one thing is clear; when it comes to wine, history will always have a significant impact on the future. Few families that have shaped the Australian wine landscape like the McWilliam family. The pioneering spirit that built the past has translated through six generations and has shaped a wine business that has innovation, drive and legacy stitched into its DNA.
Samuel’s Fate The first steps of the McWilliam’s path were taken by Samuel McWilliam when he set foot on Australian soil from Northern Ireland in 1857. At that time, wine in Australia was well on its way, but it was all about fortified wine, and as there was no electricity or refrigeration, it was a tough and labour intensive way to survive. However tough, wine became the future for the McWilliam family when Samuel travelled up the Murray River with his wife Martha and family and settled in Corowa. He called his property ‘Sunnyside’ and his neighbours just happened to be another famous Australian pioneering wine family, the Lindemans.  “The family’s fate was sealed,” describes Samuel’s great-great-grandson, Jeff McWilliam. “Samuel took what learnings he could from his neighbours and set about making fortified wines on his vineyard.” Second Gen Pioneers Around this time, the fortified industry was under threat, with phylloxera decimating Victorian vineyards. Two of Samuel’s sons, John James (JJ) and Thomas had the foresight to move from Corowa with the intention of establishing disease-free vineyards. Just before the turn of the century, the brothers established ‘Mark View’ a vineyard and property in Junee, just north of Wagga. A few years later, Samuel passed away and his three daughters, Eliza, Rose May and Mary, returned to make wine at Sunnyside, becoming among Australia’s first female winemakers, further cementing the family’s passion for wine.
JJ and Sons Blaze the Trail In 1913, JJ and one of his four sons, Jack, took 50,000 of their vine cuttings and headed to Griffith and became the first in the region to plant and establish grapes. This move solidified the McWilliam name as true pioneers and innovators, as such, the Riverina is now an undisputed wine powerhouse, growing 15% of Australia’s total production.   When asked in a newspaper interview why he’d chosen this region, JJ said, “The Riverina offers all a man has ever dreamed of – sunshine, great soils and water.”  Here’s the thing, when JJ and Jack arrived in Griffith, it was pre-irrigation, yet the father and son team was so determined that this was the future of Australian wine, they spent months carting water to quench their nursery vineyard. 
Growth and Innovation. As the McWilliam family grew and set deeper roots in NSW, the business evolved and the innovative nature of the family flourished. JJ and Jack toiled away establishing their vineyards and building the winery, which was completed in 1917.  The winery became known as Hanwood and remains today as the family’ primary production facility and is still the beating heart of McWilliam’s. Hanwood was built next to a planned railway, so the wine could be easily transported to Sydney, but after the state failed to follow through on construction, Jack’s brother Doug decided to build another winery at Yenda, where the railway was eventually built. With a direct route to the Sydney market, further innovation was around the corner. “With the growth of production came the need to sell more wine. Jack and Doug’s brother, Keith believed the family needed to build their brand, so Keith, a bit of a self-taught marketer, decided to take on the job,” says Jeff. “He worked with wine merchants, opened our Sydney cellars, he had trucks with our name on the side, going over the top to build the brand and promote what is now packaged, branded wine.” Keith also opened wine bars in Sydney close to the city and transport hubs. “People tell me they remember the wine bar at Strathfield station,” says Jeff. “They actually got off the train, changed to another train and had a port or a sherry on the way through.” Jack’s youngest brother Glen also contributed to the family’s innovation by designing and building ‘The McWilliam’s Drainer’, wine equipment that separates the juice from the skins and is still used today in wineries all over Australia. Glen’s many achievements include bringing new table wine varieties to the region and making Australia’s first botrytis wine in 1958, a style that is now synonymous with Australia’s identity.
Investing in the industry  At the turn of the 20th century the Australian wine engine was fuelled by fortified wines, but there were small pockets of table wines being made. One was in the Hunter Valley. At Mount Pleasant, winemaker Maurice O’Shea was crafting distinctive wines that Keith McWilliam saw great potential in. As Maurice had little means of selling his wines, and needed finances to continue, Keith invested in Mount Pleasant. Maurice O’Shea went on to produce some of Australia’s greatest table wines, inspiring winemakers to this day. McWilliam’s maintains O’Shea’s legacy by making wines that carry his name and in 1990 initiated the Maurice O’Shea Award. Presented to an individual or group that has made a significant contribution to the industry, it is regarded as the most prestigious award in Australian wine. It is a rare thing that a company will actively reward and promote its competitors. But the O’Shea Award openly reflects McWilliam’s commitment to an industry they have helped shape for over 100 years.  Events + McWilliam’s Dinner Series McWilliam’s, in partnership with Selector, is hosting a series of special dinners reflecting its iconic history and the wines creating its future. Canberra in October, then Brisbane in November with more cities to follow. Visit wineselectors.com.au/events for more info.
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